Why Is Wikipedia Removing References to Neil deGrasse Tyson Misquoting George W. Bush?

(Photo: Flickr / lwpkommunikacio)Neil deGrasse Tyson is an American astrophysicist and science communicator. He also hosts the podcast StarTalk radio show.

Wikipedia editors have removed references to evidence that famous scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson uses fake quotes, including one that he attributed to former President George W. Bush, in his speeches.

The controversy began with an article by The Federalist's Sean Davis pointing out that Tyson, host of Fox's "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey" and director of the Hayden Planetarium, confused the mean, or average, of a set of numbers with the median, or midpoint, of a set of numbers in one of his presentations. Tyson may have also used fabricated quotes for unnamed members of Congress and journalists. (Davis could not find the quotes on LexisNexis.)

Tyson responded to the criticism in the comment section by saying Davis misunderstood the context of the speech because he was not there for the whole speech.

"When I am invited to give a talk, especially to an audience that is not the general public, but to a specific gathering of people within a trade, I tune the contents for that audience, for that time, and for that place. So tone and flavor and context and intent are all key elements to any message I convey — all missing to anyone who was not present at the time," he wrote.

(A spokeswoman for the Hayden Planetarium confirmed in a response to The Daily Beast that the comment was written by Tyson.)

Davis responded to Tyson in a Sept. 15 article where he found additional examples of Tyson using the same apparently fabricated quotes. He also found that Tyson changes the facts of a story he often tells about being called to serve on a jury.

On Sept. 16, Davis published another article about Tyson, this time misquoting Bush: according to Tyson, Bush sowed religious division after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by claiming that Christianity's God is the only true God.

In "attempting to distinguish we from they," Tyson said, Bush said in a speech within a week after the attack that, "our God is the God who named the stars."

Tyson's accusation is problematic for at least two reasons: 1) Bush never said that. 2) Bush's speeches were about uniting the world against the terrorist threat and did not sow religious division. (Tyson also misattributed the quote to a paraphrase of Genesis. It is in Isaiah.) So, Tyson not only misquoted Bush, he misrepresented him.

According to Davis, this was not just a one-time mistake. Tyson used the misquote in speeches across the country.

Since presidential speeches are meticulously documented, the quote would be easy to find if it were real. For further confirmation, however, Davis checked with four of Bush's top aides. They all confirmed that they never heard Bush say that and that he claimed the exact opposite in many of his speeches.

Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson reminded Davis that Bush was even criticized in 2003 by some Evangelicals for claiming that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Robert Draper of The New York Times and ABC News' Terry Moran also weighed in, via Twitter, criticizing Tyson for fabricating the quote.

The controversy has since been covered by Breitbart, The Daily Beast, The Friendly Atheist, The Washington Post, and The Weekly Standard.

When someone tried to add the controversy to Tyson's Wikipedia page, however, Wikipedia editors removed the references, Davis pointed out on Sept. 18.

In a Sept. 23 follow-up, Davis noted that Tyson's Wiki page has been revised at least 60 times since he first broke the story of Tyson fabricating quotes. Every time someone tries to add a reference to the controversy, a Wikipedia editor removes it.

Davis also combed through Wikipedia's discussion page on Tyson and published some of the justifications the editors used for removing the references.

Those justifications included:

"This is thus far a relatively insignificant story pushed by a fringe attack blog[.]"

"If this was something important, then you would see a lot more sources covering."

"So far it is a non-notable commentary that began in an obscure media site (thefederalist.com) and was picked up with even more obscure sites/blogs."

"People who want this information here and now may complain that Wikipedia has a liberal bias, but, in fact, this is being kept off because Wikipedia is deeply conservative in the non-political meaning of the word."

On Sept. 24, at least one Wikipedia editor entered the discussion to argue that the references to Tyson misquoting Bush were removed by a single editor and should not have been removed unless there were a consensus on their discussion page.

An editor going by the name S Philbrick wrote, "the current statement indicates what Tyson said, then has a minor hint that it has been challenged. That is not remotely the case. Bush speech historians have weighted in that he never said it. Searches of transcripts have been done and it hasn't been found. The speech that Bush made has been found, so we know what he said, and it doesn't match the point made by Tyson. If there is any BLP [biography of living person] violation, it is a violation against Bush, as the current wording leaves the impression that only one source challenges the statement, and that statement doesn't even say it didn't happen."

At the time of this publication, Tyson's Wikipedia entry still did not include references to Tyson misquoting Bush.